Bill Russell reshaped college basketball before becoming an NBA icon
Russell’s career at the University of San Francisco was just as impressive
The death of basketball legend Bill Russell on July 31, 2022, led to most attention being paid to his accomplished life as both a pro athlete and as an unrelenting figure during the civil rights movement.
As a member of the Boston Celtics, Russell won 11 championships in 13 seasons, the last two titles coming as player-coach, the first Black man to coach in pro sports and the first to win a title. He was honored as such when the NBA retired his No. 6 jersey for all 30 teams, and the Celtics commemorated him through their City Edition jerseys for the 2022-23 season.
While racking up titles, awards (with five league MVP trophies, he is second only to contemporary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six) and innumerable honors, Russell was also a force through America’s civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. The Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree was unforgiving in the face of racism, boycotting institutions that practiced racial segregation, and famously standing alongside Muhammad Ali during the heavyweight boxer’s banishment from boxing after refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War.
But while Russell’s professional exploits deserve the attention they receive, Russell’s college career was just as impressive.
No, he didn’t play for Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky, nor was he a member of the UCLA dynasty. Instead, the future two-time Basketball Hall of Famer attended little-known University of San Francisco, the school across the Bay Bridge from his second hometown of Oakland.
The Dons, both through a changing college basketball landscape and the racial animus of 1950s America, put together what was at the time the longest winning streak in college basketball history: 60 consecutive wins, including back-to-back national titles in 1955 and 1956.
Ahead of Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, the first since Russell’s passing, here’s the story of how one of the biggest names in basketball history came from a small-time program in the Bay, changing basketball along the way.
Jim Crow beginnings
Russell was born in 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana, in Ouachita Parish, which has 35 recorded lynchings in its history. The product of a drayman and sharecropper father, and a nurturing and education-focused mother, Russell was taught 1.) white people were not better than him and 2.) not to accept white supremacy or oppression.
“He was a man who knew how to draw a line between himself and the indignities that Jim Crow could put upon an African American man in the South, in the 1930s,”said Aram Goudsouzian, a history professor at the University of Memphis and author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.
The family moved to Oakland in 1943 as part of the Great Migration, when some 6 million Black Southerners spread across the country in the 1900s in search of housing, jobs and freedom from the segregated South.
Russell arrived at USF in September 1952 to a San Francisco that was both growing from a post-World War II infrastructure boon and evolving culturally. From 1940 to 1970, the Black population in San Francisco increased from about 5,000 people to almost 100,000. The city itself was in the midst of a shift with the coming counterculture movement.
“We didn’t have a gym, so we worked out over in the Haight-Ashbury district,” Mike Farmer, a forward on the Dons’ 1956 championship team, said of the San Francisco neighborhood that was the backdrop of the Summer of Love and the hippies. “And that’s when everybody was in the Golden Gate park smoking weed and getting ready for the ’60s.”
Russell’s arrival at USF
While USF would go on to back-to-back championships in the mid-1950s, by no means was Russell joining a powerhouse during his freshman year in 1952. The Dons won the NIT championship in 1949, but averaged just 10 wins per season the three years preceding Russell’s promotion to the varsity team.
The team went years without a gym on campus. They practiced at St. Ignatius High School, a Jesuit school, splitting court time with teenagers coming straight from algebra.
“We didn’t have that much time to work out,” said Farmer.
The team played home games at the nearby Kezar Pavilion or The Cow Palace in neighboring Daly City, California. They were called the “Homeless Dons.”
Russell wasn’t exactly walking into Rupp’s Kentucky program, but USF wasn’t exactly getting George Mikan either.
When Russell showed up on campus, “He could barely make a layup,” former USF basketball assistant Ross Giudice, who is credited as helping sharpen Russell’s defense, told the Los Angeles Times in 2007.
Russell was gangly, clumsy and uncoordinated. During his first official practice, he could not perform warmup calisthenics, walking while squatting. A USF coach called him “fundamentally unsound.” This owed to the fact that he’d only started one year on varsity at McClymonds High School in Oakland. The 14 points he scored in his final high school game was a career high.
“Bill Russell was the 16th player on a 15-man JV team at McClymonds High School,” Goudsouzian said.
“… He was still sort of figuring out the game of basketball by the time that he graduated from high school.”
Even so, the talent was evident. Coach Phil Woolpert, who was hired in 1950, marveled at Russell’s timing, leaping ability, and sense of inner confidence. “But he was so ungainly,” Woolpert once said, according to Goudsouzian’s 2007 research paper on Russell and the Dons, The House that Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed College Basketball.
After high school, Russell took a personal work-study on how to be a better defender, studying offensive players’ moves, how to use his long arms and leaping abilities to impact offenses while playing defense. It helped that he was just an amazing athlete: Months after winning his second consecutive national basketball title in 1956, Russell set the USF record in the high jump at 6 feet, 9¼ inches, a record that still remains today.
Russell could jump higher, and quicker, than nearly any other big man at the time. Using the springs in his legs to not only grab any rebound that was available (Russell averaged 18.8 rebounds per game during the 1953-54 season, his first on varsity) but alter the shots of his opponents. Blocks weren’t an official stat during this time, but it’s estimated that Russell blocked 13 shots in his first varsity game versus Cal.
Yet, this wasn’t the defensive strategy of the day. Coaching manuals at the time said when playing defense, you don’t leave your feet, as it could take you out of the play in event of a pump fake, lead to fatigue, or the blocked shot could sail out of bounds and give the ball back to the offense. A good defensive player never leaves his feet, the thinking went.
And Woolpert very much believed in that, leading to the star player and coach butting heads on the regular.
“Russell was leaping to block shots, and Woolpert was still enough of a traditionalist where he was coaching him not to do that,” Goudsouzian said.
“… The basketball world at large was very slow to appreciate what Bill Russell was bringing to the game in the 1950s.”
Russell’s defense was the key to the Dons’ entire strategy on both ends of the court. USF could take risks with full-court presses or not switching on pick-and-rolls, simply because they had Russell in the paint to clean up any mistakes.
Russell estimated in his book, 2009’s Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, that he averaged 15 blocks per game in college.
“When he’d block a shot, he’d block it to one of us, and instead of knocking it out of bounds, we get out on the fast break,” Farmer said.
“They didn’t keep records on blocked shots [back then], but he must have had a ton every game.”
As Russell perfected his defensive craft, coincidentally the Dons’ defense, and win-loss record, began to improve. But their star player was still getting acclimated to a school, and a city, that was as foreign to him as it was familiar.
A whole new world
While the Bay Area wasn’t the Jim Crow South, it was far from a racial utopia. Russell faced police brutality and harassment while living in Oakland. As a child, Russell recalled in his 1979 book Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, he witnessed a white judge sentence a Black child to 66 years in prison for possession of marijuana.
White flight turned McClymonds from a predominantly white high school to predominantly Black high school in a short amount of time.
Before enrolling, Russell had never heard of USF, both because of its small size and the fact that despite the presence of the connecting Bay Bridge, Oakland and San Francisco were two worlds apart. Even the Black people in the San Francisco area still faced the same sort of byproducts of racial prejudice as they would in the South: limited job opportunities, poverty, police violence.
“San Francisco … was imbued with this myth of racial tolerance, that it was a place where there was more racial acceptance than you would find elsewhere in the country,” Goudsouzian said.
Russell was going from nearly all-Black West Oakland to USF, during a time when only 2% of Black people attained degrees.
And this was months before Brown v. Board of Education began being argued in the Supreme Court. During this time, predominantly white institutions like USF were rarely recruiting Black players; before 1951, only one Black man, Carl Lawson, had ever played for the Dons.
Russell and fellow basketball recruit Hal Perry represented the entire Black population of the freshman class in 1952, joining the nine other Black students at the entire school at the time, which included sophomore basketball player K.C. Jones, who would go on to be Russell’s teammate with the Boston Celtics.
USF had something of a progressive reputation at the time. It integrated its football team in the late 1940s, with future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ollie Matson, and later its basketball team. The Dons football team went 9-0 during the 1951 season but turned down an invitation to the Orange Bowl due to being asked to leave its two Black players, one of which was Matson, off the postseason roster. The football team folded after the decision.
Woolpert, the team’s coach, was essential to college basketball’s transformation in the 1950s. A product of racially diverse Los Angeles, Woolpert was willing to recruit, play and even start Black players. He addressed the country’s relationship with race head-on: On road trips, Woolpert would often room white and Black players together at the team hotel.
For the 1954-55 season, Woolpert did the unimaginable and started three Black players: Jones, Perry and Russell. It was unique to have three (or in the case of Eugene Brown and Warren Baxter, four or five) Black players on a collegiate team, let alone as starters.
Some coaches in the country had a gentleman’s agreement that they wouldn’t start more than three Black players at a time. The SEC wouldn’t be integrated until 1967.
“You could tell that a lot of the teams didn’t have very few Black players,” said Farmer.
But the move would prove prescient.
The winning streak
It was clear from the beginning that the 1954-55 Dons were a different animal.
Russell scored a school-record 39 points in USF’s first game of the season, a 54-45 win over Loyola Marymount. Mind you, Russell hadn’t even been named a “player to watch” headed into that season, according to Sports Illustrated.
In the second game of the season, USF lost by seven points to UCLA and its seventh year — and at that point, championshipless — coach John Wooden.
It would be the last time the Dons would lose for more than two years.
Starting with a 60-34 stomping of Oregon State in its third game, the Dons started rattling off wins. By early January 1955, USF had won 10 consecutive games, including victories over Stanford, Cal, George Washington and UCLA in a rematch.
The team was buoyed by its defense and its star defender. Russell’s presence had the Dons playing faster and more aggressive defense, which led to more blocked shots, more fast breaks. They spread the game out with good shooters and made it more vertical with the athleticism of Russell.
Their offense could be porous, some games shooting as low as 20% from the field, but that didn’t matter much when the defense swarmed offenses like an enraged bee colony. USF allowed just 52 points per game during the 1954-55 season, the best mark in the nation.
“That was the team that was kind of the hinge upon which college basketball turned,” Goudsouzian said. “They made the game faster. They made the game higher, they made the game more dynamic, and they made it more Black.”
Not everyone was a fan of USF’s racial acceptance on the basketball court. School alumni and members of the community were upset about Woolpert’s decision to not only integrate the program, but start three Black guys. The coach received hate mail for having the nerve to build a successful basketball program.
During the 1953-54 season, Russell’s sophomore season, some of his white teammates and classmates resented him, launching racist insults at the big man. In one episode, a white classmate called Russell both “boy” and “snowball,” another form of a racial slur. Russell told the person to not call him that, but the white kid persisted. “He woke up on the floor,” Russell wrote in Red and Me.
“The Jesuits at the university had very progressive attitudes about racial matters, but not all the students took them to heart, especially on the basketball team,” Russell wrote in Second Wind.
But after that season, those same teammates graduated, and by the time he joined the varsity team in 1955-56, Farmer says there were few issues about being an integrated squad.
“I liked the Black infusion, because at Richmond High, I was the only white player on the team,” said Farmer, who used to hop on and off freight trains down to Oakland as a kid. “So that was very comfortable for me.”
But the racism persisted whenever the Dons traveled for away games, particularly in the South.
As the winning streak was beginning in 1954-55, USF traveled to Oklahoma City for the All-College Tournament. Due to the South’s segregation laws — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still a decade away — the Dons’ Black players weren’t allowed to stay in a hotel in downtown Oklahoma City. Spectators at the tournament pelted the team with coins during pregame warmups.
A season later, during a game at Loyola University in New Orleans, the Black players were once again barred from the team hotel, so instead they stayed at historically Black Xavier University.
Spectators ramped up the racism, throwing coins at the visiting team.
“[Russell] asked the trainer, ‘Look, when they quit throwing money, would you go out there and pick it up? It’s more money than I’ll ever make at USF,’ ” Farmer remembered.
The team had a choice whether to play or not. According to Farmer, Russell told his teammates, “Let’s go make a statement.” The Dons did just that, beating Loyola 61-43.
“So we went down, and we kind of ran the score up a little bit,” Farmer said.
What some in the country couldn’t understand or fathom about USF was how race didn’t divide the team as it had the rest of America.
The teammates would hang out together playing pingpong in their barracks (this was before dormitories existed). There wasn’t much tension on the team, Farmer remembers. There was actually racial harmony among them.
Goudsouzian agrees: “It was a team that didn’t have racial issues in 1955, in 1956. In the midst of this great success, in fact, they were a model of racial cooperation in a way that the Boston Celtics … would be too.”
Russell famously led his Celtics team to boycotting a 1961 exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, after two Black players were refused service in the coffee shop at their team hotel.
“I had absolutely no sense of being oppressed. I felt like a hungry Black man, anxious for home, not just another angry ‘Negro’ victim,” Russell wrote in Red and Me.
The California Basketball Association, later renamed the West Coast Conference, was not one of the major conferences in college basketball. Of the four schools that made up the rest of the association in 1954-55 (Santa Clara, Saint Mary’s, Pacific, San Jose State), only Santa Clara had more than one NCAA tournament appearance at the time, with the Broncos making it to back-to-back Final Fours between 1952-54. A season later, the association added Loyola Marymount (zero tournament appearances), Pepperdine (one tournament appearance) and Fresno State (inaugural season).
Unsurprisingly, USF swept through its 1954-55 conference schedule and finished the regular season 21-1, running off 21 straight wins.
“Those were teams that USF just absolutely crushed in the midst of the streak,” Goudsouzian said.
Much was the same in the NCAA tournament. Russell scored a game-high 29 points in a 89-66 first-round win over West Texas State. A bout with the flu (which required a shot of penicillin before the game, according to author Murry R. Nelson’s 2005 biography of Russell) limited Russell to 13 points in the next round against Utah, but that didn’t stop the Dons from leading 41-20 at halftime on the way to a 78-59 win. Russell scored 29 and 24 points, respectively, in the next rounds against Oregon State and Colorado; the 57-56 win over Oregon State would be the closest the Dons would come to losing over the next year.
Eventual tourney MVP Russell scored 23 points and grabbed 25 rebounds in the 77-63 title game victory against defending champion La Salle, outmatching defending tourney MVP Tom Gola.
The Dons ended the season on a 25-game winning streak, both capturing the championship and, through Russell, changing how the game was played.
The 6-foot-10 Russell influenced how other coaches coached their centers and how referees would handle the style of bigs, the so-called Russell Rules:
- The NCAA banned the steer shot, which is when Russell would tip — or, steer — a basket in when the ball was above the cylinder.
- The lane was widened from six to 12 feet to account for bigs like Russell crowding the lane.
- Inbounding the ball over the basket was banned after Russell and Farmer would simply lob the ball from under the basket and Russell would dunk it home.
“That was the first rule he had changed, I believe,” Farmer said.
Like Sylvester Stallone coming back jacked in Rocky II, USF came into the 1955-56 season no longer as the underdog, but with a No. 1 ranking in the polls.
They were, simply put, a machine.
The Dons won their first 10 games, including a 70-53 beatdown of UCLA, by an average of 17.4 points. The closest the Dons would come to losing that season was a 7-point win over Marquette in the fourth game, and that’s only because Russell got into foul trouble.
According to Farmer, who became a starter with Russell, Perry, Jones and Carl Boldt, the team never worried about the streak. They stayed relaxed, so relaxed that they played cards and had sing-alongs before games (Johnny Cash was a favorite), and Boldt would take naps on the uncomfortable benches in the locker room. During conference play, USF would be up by so much that the starters didn’t play most games so as to not run up the score.
“It did seem like we were supposed to win,” Farmer said.
Near the end of January 1956, the streak stood at 38 consecutive wins, which at the time was understood to be one win shy of the all-time record of 39 straight wins set first by Long Island University in 1937 and tied by Seton Hall in 1941, according to The House that Russell Built.
But as USF got closer to making college basketball history, historians began to move the goalposts, unearthing new supposed record-holders.
Seton Hall and Long Island University suddenly had 43 straight wins. When the Dons surpassed that total, then it was the Kansas State Teachers College of Pittsburg, which won 47 straight from 1929-30.
And when USF broke that record with their 48th straight win, against Pacific near the end of the regular season, then the mark became 55 wins, which was set by Peru (Nebraska) State Teachers College from 1922-26.
“Who knows who they were playing against, maybe farmers,” Goudsouzian said.
The Dons would have to run the table in the NCAA tournament just to tie that record of 55 straight. But if the contrarian historians believed the streak would derail the Dons, it had the opposite effect.
“That actually was a benefit for us, because it gave us a challenge,” Farmer said. “And that was something that we didn’t have most of the year, was a challenge.”
There were any number of reasons there would be skepticism about the Dons’ record pursuit, but the makeup of the roster likely played a part in wanting to keep USF out of the history books.
“Part of it might have been to reflect some of the doubts about USF that were still around in the mid-1950s, because they played an unusual style, because their superstar was someone who people were still trying to figure out,” Goudsouzian said. “And because they were a primarily African American team at a time when college basketball was a predominantly white game still.”
Regardless, USF didn’t let up once the tournament came around. The Dons beat UCLA (72-61) in the regional semifinals, Utah (92-77) in the regional finals, SMU (86-68) in the Final Four, and Iowa (83-71) in the title game. Their average margin of victory for four games was 14 points.
In the championship game, Russell finished with 26 points, 27 rebounds and an untallied amount of blocks. The streak stood at 55 games in Russell’s final game.
For a man who descended from ancestors trapped in chattel slavery, born into Jim Crow segregation, and raised in an integrated West Coast, winning was the one thing Russell believed he could be judged on without bias. That first championship was Part 1 of a 13-part act for Russell, the number of championships he’d win between college and the pros.
“All I will care about is winning games. If I win every game I play, that’s a fact and nobody’s opinion,” Russell wrote in Red and Me. “When they look back all they’ll be able to say is, ‘Well, he didn’t play the way he should have. But he sure won a lot.’ ”
After winning its second championship in as many seasons, the starting five visited Alcatraz prison, the first non-family members to visit the notorious Bay Area prison.
While inside, the players received a ticker-tape parade from inmates lined up in their cells, including convicted-murderer-turned-bird-watcher Robert Stroud, aka the Birdman of Alcatraz. Russell was treated like a celebrity, looking every man in the eye to answer their questions.
Replacing someone of Russell’s stature would be difficult for any program, but the Dons had more success than one would expect. They won their first five games of the 1956-57 over Chico State, Cal, San Francisco State, Seattle and Loyola (Illinois), setting the mark at 60.
USF lost its sixth game of the season to Illinois, 62-33, but that technically wasn’t the loss that ended the streak. A few days earlier, the Dons lost an exhibition to the U.S. Olympic team, a squad led by Russell.
“That’s the only time other than the NBA that I guarded Russell,” said Farmer, who was drafted third overall by the New York Knicks in the 1958 NBA draft and played eight seasons.
Nevertheless, the Dons finished the regular season 18-6, and made it to the 1956-57 Final Four, but lost to Kansas and its star center Wilt Chamberlain, who was positioned as the next generation of Bill Russell, which led to a storied rivalry in the NBA.
The next season, Farmer’s senior year, the Dons won 25 games but fell to Seattle in the first round of the tournament.
USF had some success over the next two decades, making the NCAA tournament 11 times from 1957 to 1979. But the program bottomed out in the next decade, being placed on probation twice by the NCAA during the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons for illegal payments to players and recruits. The university shut the basketball program down from 1982 to 1985 following the sanctions.
The Dons have only made the NCAA tournament twice since 1982, the most recent being last year’s team that lost in the first round to Murray State. That dropoff in production plays one of many parts in why Russell’s USF teams aren’t as easily recognizable as the other collegiate dynasties.
“As central as USF is to understanding the history of college basketball in, sort of, the popular myths that we tell, the stories that we tell about college basketball, they’ve kind of been swept under the the rug to some degree,” Goudsouzian said. “They’ve also been overshadowed by John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty that came in their immediate aftermath, because that was a longer streak and a more dominant run, and UCLA was a more established institution.”
Within 10 years of USF setting the consecutive wins record, the UCLA dynasty was born, pulling off separate 47- and 88-game (a still record) win streaks in the 1960s and 1970s.
Even after two championships and 55 straight wins, the Russell-USF story didn’t have a happy ending. When Russell left school in 1956 to join the U.S. Olympic team and be drafted later by the Celtics, he was 16 units shy of a degree.
When Russell returned in the summer of 1957, after winning the first of 11 championships with Boston, he wrote in his 1966 book, Go Up for Glory, that the school didn’t offer to honor the rest of his scholarship and Russell would have to pay his own way.
“Dear old USF charged me full retail for my tuition,” he wrote.
The school’s president later offered Russell the opportunity to finish for free, but Russell was his typical stubborn self.
“Bill told him to stuff it,” Farmer said. “So that was the last kind of relationship that he had with USF.”
Russell’s success did lead to the team finally getting a home gym: the War Memorial Gymnasium, which is still used by the program today, opened in 1958.
In just three years, the scrawny, underdeveloped kid from the Jim Crow South who showed up on USF’s campus in 1952 having barely played basketball changed the history of the Dons and college basketball.
“He had an impact. He changed a lot of things that happened in the game. He changed a lot of the rules that we were used to at that time,” Farmer said.
“And I think his impact showed that if you work hard, you can start out as a junior varsity player, and a second-team player in high school, and end up where he ended up.”
Added Goudsouzian: “Even if Bill Russell had never played a second in the NBA, he would still have had an enduring impact upon how we understand basketball, because it was during his USF years that basketball really changed into what we would now think of as modern basketball.
“… It becomes a faster sport. It becomes a more dynamic sport. It becomes a more African American sport.”